Picture: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
Picture: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

Dozens of global brands have suspended advertising on Facebook to put pressure on the network to address hate speech, and the boycott is expanding to other platforms. Over the weekend Starbucks announced it had suspended advertising on some social media platforms in response to hate speech – joining brands such as Coca-Cola, Diageo and Unilever.

Facebook has long been criticised for its failure to moderate content on its platform, despite accusations that its approach may have been instrumental in securing Donald Trump the White House four years ago.

Campaigners accuse Facebook especially of not doing enough to stop hate speech and disinformation.

In addition to its failure to moderate political misinformation, the platform also stands accused of allowing scamsters to advertise their wares without compunction. Facebook has a facility which allows for suspect ads in the UK to be reported to a central investigation office at Facebook for possible removal, but it’s not available anywhere else.

Crooks are always keen to separate you and your money, and get-rich quick scamsters are again preying on the desperate to take the little they have left in the midst of the most serious economic crisis in living memory. They are using social media to promote their offerings and there’s little sign the global platforms that carry their messaging have any intention of shutting them down.

It used to be that you had to put on a balaclava and take a firearm into a bank branch to get a bag of cash, but as financial institutions have tightened security, that’s become harder to do. If you can’t be bothered to rob a bank, you could just steal an entire bank – if the VBS docket is to be believed. All you need is a broad conspiracy of individuals with lots of authority and sufficient self-belief that they will never be held to account and you can help yourself to the deposits of a country’s most needy.

Alternatively, you can just get people to give you their money voluntarily. They do it under the guise of “an investment”, and the odds of ever being held to account here are slim. After all, when the scheme fails, many of the people you caught out will be too embarrassed to admit they were swindled; besides, building a case against perpetrators who increasingly hide their digital footprints is increasingly hard to do.

I can almost plot to the day, following an ad on Facebook, when the e-mails will start coming into my inbox asking whether I have seen this latest “investment opportunity” and asking if I could investigate and let my correspondent know if it’s a scam.

Is it a pyramid scheme, they ask. Short answer? If it’s being punted on social media and has no visible means of income beyond a requirement that you sign up new members, then it probably is.

Typically, these sorts of schemes require each new member to sign up half a dozen more until everyone who is going to be taken in has signed up and there is no fresh fodder, before it predictably collapses in on itself – but not before the person at the top of the pyramid has harvested enormous returns for themselves.

Last week, the Financial Sector Conduct Authority cautioned people against investing in Crowd1. I won’t waste time to go into the details here – but if it looks like a pyramid and is shaped like a pyramid, odds are it sphinx to high heaven (yes, I know, I just did that).

Dodgy ads for unsavoury services used to appear in newspaper classifieds – today, for a fraction of the cost per customer, they are found on social media sites. And clearly they must work, because there are plenty of them and they keep on coming. And platform owners are doing nothing to stop them.

The UK is the only country in the world that has forced Facebook to put a button on its pages that allows users to report ads they believe to be scams. It came about as a result of a campaign by financial educator Martin Lewis, who forced Facebook’s hand after his image was used to promote fraudulent investments on the platform. Facebook introduced the feature and promised to support it with a specially trained team that reviews and takes down dodgy posts.

Scam adverts often use fake celebrity images or endorsements in addition to making significant claims about returns in an effort to fool users into parting with their money.

Facebook in SA has declined to comment on why, if it is possible to have the feature in the UK, it cannot be rolled out here, or, indeed, anywhere else in the world.

The idea that Facebook would deliberately take down paid-for advertising may sound as logical as the annual turkey convention in November ratifying Christmas, but the company is under increasing pressure over its content policies and it’s facing a growing boycott from high-profile companies.

Beside the direct reputational risk of brands being seen on Facebook, the fact that a growing percentage of the ads on the site are questionable means that legitimate brands realise putting their corporate colours anywhere near it makes them look bad too.

So Facebook needs to act, if not simply to do the right thing, then to save itself from long-term harm.